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Nearly 80 Years Later, Orson Welles's 'Dracula' Is Still a Scary, Sexualized Masterpiece

The legendary director's audio staging of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' is a horrific, lusty, transcendent live wire of sound, still modern today.
May 6, 2015, 8:00am

Orson Welles. Photo credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images

The last time I was on a bus coming home from New York City in the middle of the night, things got a bit dicey. A number of drug deals were going down around me, and these two chunky felonious types behind me kept talking about the best way to rob people. I had been awake for 36 straight hours for work, but it seemed best to keep alert. So, as a kind of auditory smelling salt, I turned to Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe and the first radio program they did, an audio staging of Bram Stoker's Dracula, one of the most horrific and transcendent presentations of sounds I've ever experienced.

Welles would have been 100 today, May 6, and his films— Citizen Kane (1941) in particular—are being lionized once more, with people finding a reason to revisit The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958), and, I hope, the perpetually overlooked Chimes at Midnight (1967). But for all of Welles's filmic artistry, he was equally accomplished at radio and live-action theater works. It was as though Welles was himself the force of art: All he needed to do was simply learn up on any medium, and then he would quickly master it.

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The Welles who put the Mercury cast through their Transylvanian paces on the night of July 11, 1938, was all of 23, already a Broadway world-beater, cherub-faced, not yet obese, his voice less baronial than it would grow to be in his later years, when he was reduced to hawking, infamously, Paul Masson wine. Back then his voice was fluid enough to assume a broad range of roles and serve as a veritable sounding board of the human condition. At one moment, he could be effervescent with cheek, as in the Mercury's production of Booth Tarkington's Seventeen. Other times his voice could slide into jazzy blue notes, like in the adaptation of the little-known polar nonfiction saga Hell on Ice. Still other times he could sound hopped-up and simply radiant while telling a potboiler of a story, as with the charming staging of Dickens's Pickwick Papers .

The full recording of Orson Welles's 'Dracula'

The Mercury crew normally had a week to put together their broadcasts, and they followed the same pattern, with everything being tweaked up till the last minute. Welles and producer John Houseman would come up with a book, compose a script (or else hire out the writing), and then Welles would tear the sucker up at the eleventh hour, swear at people, launch all sorts of items, and imbibe copious amounts of coffee, whiskey, and pineapple juice. He was a busy man, racing from one gig to another, and hit upon the idea of hiring an ambulance to ferry him around Manhattan, and would open the door to his hotel room in the nude, because, hey, who had the time to put clothes on?

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When listening to Dracula, one has to remember that radio was as big as entertainment got at the time. Few people had televisions, and reading—then, as now—was regarded as fairly boring. You could sit around the radio with your family and enjoy a program together, and most people could afford one. As you might expect, there was a lot of tripe on the airways— Fibber McGee and Molly, anyone?—and Welles and company weren't keen to do their version of any of that. Their highbrow goals were made clear right from the keening notes of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto of that initial broadcast—Welles was going to try to do what Welles, in my view, was most about: appealing to both masses and schoolmasters at the same time. He aimed to produce works that would satisfy the groundlings while giving something professorial types could savor, study, and revisit later.

Truth be told, the Mercury Dracula is practically orgiastic in its deployment of sound.

The Mercury Theatre program pulled in only about 4 percent of the nation's radio audience, and the broadcasts made few attempts to dumb down their material. We often think of Dracula the novel as some creaky antique that just happened to give us one of literature's most lasting characters, but if you have occasion to read it again, note what a modernist primer it is. It's a collage novel composed of journal scraps, ciphers, bills of sale, sound cylinders, letters, and what Welles terms "memoranda" in his intro to the Mercury broadcast. Welles plays Doctor Seward, acting as the de facto narrator, and also takes on the title role, giving the vampire an unexpected aura of disturbing sexuality.

The public of 1938 mostly associated Dracula with the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi in his classic role, or else the stage play, also starring Lugosi, that predated it. I love the Lugosi film, but it's a real creaker, so Welles's adaptation already had a built-in shock factor—audiences weren't expecting something so raw to come out of their radios. (Welles was a lusty guy; there's even an in-joke in the broadcast when a sailor throws himself overboard and is given the name of one of Welles's romantic rivals.)

Truth be told, the Mercury Dracula is practically orgiastic in its deployment of sound. For instance, normally, musical cues and sound effects were positioned after some dialogue or a scene had concluded, but Welles—with no less a composer than Bernard Herrmann overseeing the music—has mattocks fall on earth as people talk. Wolves bray in unison with Dracula's slightly metallic-tinged lines. Waves pound against scuppers as perfervid outbursts of fear and desolation overlap.

Welles's Dracula becomes more sensually aggressive as the broadcast goes on; he's creepy at first, but he becomes more and more venturesome, with Welles going into chanting mode, just about, with a rigor suggesting the steady pace of masturbation as the Count intones about "wing, tooth, scale, tissue of flesh." His refrain, an eldritch leitmotif of "flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood," is exactly the sort of corruption of Christian iconography that Stoker was after, and I have no doubt that Welles had instructed the production's Lucy and Mina (the latter played by no less than Agnes Moorehead) to sound like they were climaxing after he got through with it. ("Make like you did last night," I imagine him saying.)

You have to wonder what Ma and Pa Middle America made of all of this. The chanty hoodoo of the production would resurface in Welles's on-the-cheap cinematic mounting of Macbeth (1948), and the two works have always struck me as cousins of a sort. Macbeth is haunted by a greater-than-usual presence of the Weird Sisters, whereas the very soundscape of Dracula is like something escaped from a cauldron to do some dark bidding. Only here, that cauldron is a radio.

Colin Fleming's fiction appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Boulevard, and Black Clock, and he also writes for the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and the Boston Globe. His next book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, comes out in August from Dzanc, and he's also a regular contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition.